The passive voice kills readability in B2B content - radii
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The passive voice kills readability in B2B content

The passive voice kills readability in B2B content

Writing about technologies, software or engineering requires an ability to simplify. To quote Albert Einstein, a man who knew a thing or two about complexity, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

I read a lot of B2B marketing content, so I continue to wonder why people complicate their writing (and undermine their case) with the passive voice. It makes reading and comprehension more difficult.

This hurts conversion and nobody writes marketing content hoping for that outcome. Google “Does the passive voice lower readability” and you’ll see what I mean.


The active voice makes content more dynamic

I used the active voice in my headline. If I’d gone with the passive voice, the line would read something like “Readability in B2B content is killed by the passive voice.”

The active voice makes its points crisply and efficiently, adding drive and energy to sentences. The passive voice tangles sentences and turns paragraphs into hairballs.

Few people will keep reading content they have to untangle to understand — life’s too short and there are too many other options available.


Why the passive voice doesn’t work

We learn to read and write in the active voice. Somewhere along the way though, people start using the passive voice, particularly when they want to sound formal and more business-like.

Being hard to understand makes your content less readable.

The active voice gives a sentence a subject, a verb and an object if necessary. The passive voice turns that formula on its head, making the subject an object, or target of another action.

Who or what performs the action in the passive voice? We don’t always know, because the passive voice obscures that fact.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this makes it the maneuver of choice for public officials issuing statements about wrongdoing.

“Mistakes were made” provides more cover than “I screwed up, big-time.”


How to avoid the passive voice

If you write a sentence with some form of the verb “to be” (is, was, will be, might be), coupled with a past participle such as integrated, amalgamated or utilized, then you’re tangling your content with the passive voice.

Convert that sentence to the active voice and it becomes more readable.

Thus, “Our innovative new integrated circuit was developed utilizing best-in-class materials and construction” becomes “We developed our new integrated circuit using advanced materials and construction.”

So much better!  Plus, we get bonus points for scrapping the word “utilized,” which, frankly, is nothing more than a grandiose way of saying “used.”

I always advise clients to stick with the active voice. It goes to work faster and that matters when you’re trying to explain products or services and their benefits.

I’ve read defenses of the passive voice that acknowledge its value as a literary device. Which is fine — save it for the novel you’re writing, but avoid or minimize it in your business writing.


Write with a purpose

Remember, B2B marketing isn’t art. It’s commerce — your creativity has to serve a strategy. If you want prospects and customers to read your social media posts, take an active interest in your words and sentences.

Give your sentences a subject, verb and, if necessary, an object. If you’d like some help editing that content, let us know!

Jay Kirkman

Jay works on the front end of assignments, developing strategies and creative concepts, and writing copy. A self-described "engineering groupie," he thrives on talking to engineers about their work and using their insights in the content we develop.